What do 1950s comic books and the Lake Champlain monster have in common? Sid Couchey.
He may not be a household name, but the titles of Couchey’s comics certainly were. “At one time,” he says, “Richie Rich was the most popular comic book in the world, translated into many languages.”
Indeed, the story of the tow-headed, bow-tied “world’s wealthiest kid” generated a 1980s animated television series, a 1994 movie starring then-still-child actor Macaulay Culkin and a sequel two years later. Richie was part of a cast of characters created for Harvey Comics that also included Little Lotta and Little Dot.
Though Couchey’s early mentor at the company, Warren Kremer, invented the characters, Couchey drew them, and others, from his home in Essex, N.Y., for several decades. He slyly inserted details from the area in the storylines, such as the names of friends and local businesses, and he managed to influence how the characters behaved.
Now 91, Couchey pretty much is a household name around Essex, but these days he’s arguably best known for his affectionate depictions of “Champ,” the alleged behemoth serpent of Lake Champlain. Since moving upstate from New York City in 1961 with his wife, Ruth (to whom he proposed through a “Little Lotta” comic 51 years ago), the Cleveland-born Couchey has adopted the mythical creature, artistically speaking. He refers to Champ as decidedly real — though with tongue in cheek, one suspects — and has built a body of artworks around it.
Some of these cartoons and paintings currently make up an exhibit on one wall of the Adirondack Art Association Gallery in Essex. A founding member of the AAA, Couchey has shown these pieces in the area before, including at an exhibit in Willsboro, N.Y., on the occasion of his 90th birthday last year. For denizens of the Champlain Valley, the pictures seem to have staying power.
And it turns out that folks on the New York side of the lake have a friendly competition regarding the monster’s residency. “Port Henry thinks it’s the home of Champy,” says Couchey. “We say Essex is its summer home.”
Though a similarly jokey quality runs through most of his illustrations, a selection Couchey calls the “Champy by the Masters” series reveals his “serious” artistic skill. Each of these Champ depictions emulates the style of a famous artist.
Still, they’re funny. Couchey signs the works after their inspirations: “Sid Seurat Couchey,” “Sid Picasso Couchey” and so on. The first depicts a pointillist Champy, the second a cubist one with eyes askew. In the work signed “Sid Monet Couchey,” Champy pokes a pink head through a flotilla of water lilies. In a black-and-white departure from his typically colorful works, Rodin’s “The Thinker” is represented by a 2-D curled-up serpent looking as contemplative as could be expected. Ornate architectural details, presumably from Rodin’s Paris jardin, appear in the background.
In the 1980s, Couchey illustrated for a nostalgia-themed magazine called Good Old Days. He also scored a gig with the state of Vermont creating a character called Rascal Raccoon that was used in an anti-alcohol campaign directed at children. (An oversized 3-D version still resides in Couchey’s barn. “I don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “It’s so large and ungainly.”) In 1994, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Kansas City Comics Convention.
Sixteen years later, that lifetime continues, and Couchey is still a “cartoonist for hire.” His mark is evident in Essex, appearing on an outdoor sign created for the summer homestead of former New York Governor George Pataki, just down the road. Couchey’s daughter, Laura Couchey Abate, who lives near Troy, N.Y., has written a book for children based on her father’s work. A Cartoonist’s Introduction to the Masters features, of course, drawings from his Masters series. The book is not yet published, but if it is, Sid Couchey may well influence yet another generation of kids, even without the largesse of Richie Rich.
Meanwhile, Couchey draws daily, while reserving time for a local group he cofounded called the Do Nothing Club. “We can talk and eat doughnuts,” he says of this passel of friends. “And we can suggest things, but we can’t act on them.” Champy, it appears, is not a member.